Stunning figures from the State of Global Air 2020 report blame air pollution for 20% of newborn deaths worldwide, with nearly 476,000 infants dying in the first month of life in 2019 alone. 

The State of Global Air is a partnership between the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project. The partnership’s annual report analyzes air pollution trends around the globe. In 2019, air pollution moved from 5th position to 4th on the list of leading risk factors for death globally. Yet the report found that little progress has been made to alleviate the impacts of air pollution — and that young people bear the brunt of the damage.

Source: State of Global Air 2020

A growing body of scientific evidence has linked air pollution exposure during pregnancy to low birth weight and pre-term birth, conditions that the report associates with the astounding number of newborn deaths. Nearly 60 percent of all these deaths are among babies born in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, regions with very high rates of air pollution.

“We don’t totally understand what the mechanisms are at this stage, but there is something going on that is causing reductions in baby growth and ultimately birth weight,” Katherine Walker, a principal scientist at the Health Effects Institute, told The Guardian newspaper. “There is an epidemiological link, shown across multiple countries in multiple studies.”

While we may not know the exact causes yet, it is clear that air pollution exposure is leading to the deaths of nearly a half-million babies, and creating other health burdens, including brain and organ damage. The report urges countries to take action to reduce air pollution and to remove it as one of the major risk factors for early death and disability.